CBS came into Saturday’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos with a clear story line in its mind: Peyton Manning is God, and all our cameras and announcers are here to worship him.
During the first quarter, viewers saw more close-ups of Manning’s right-hand glove than the one Johnnie Cochran made famous during the O.J. Simpson trial. And when Manning started to struggle in the second half and gave up a key fumble, analyst Dan Dierdorf told viewers during the replay and review, it wasn’t a fumble at all, it was an incompletion. Wrong again, Dan.
Ultimately, Manning’s right hand and right arm did prove to be the difference in the game, but not the way CBS had it figured. An interception in the first quarter gave the Ravens one touchdown, and another interception in overtime set up the field goal that allowed the Ravens to pull off one of the great upsets in playoff history with a 38-35 double-overtime victory over Manning and the heavily favored Broncos.
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What an exhilarating and utterly exhausting experience it was watching the telecast. When the play on the field is that sublime, it seems almost meaningless to review the telecast. Really, as I write this immediately after the game, in my heart of hearts, I don’t care how many things CBS did wrong. I would not have missed a second of the telecast. I am so glad that I recorded the game for the sake of this review, because I will probably sit up all night watching it over and over and over until I pass out.
Look, the Manning worship on the part of CBS was excessive and maddening. But, in truth, the problem here is larger than CBS Sports. It’s our culture. Not only did the CBS pre-game show sing his praises to the point where he seemed unbeatable, when CBS went to commercials, there was Manning in the ads, selling Buicks. It was the same thing all day Saturday on the NFL Network. Manning is the kind of feel-good, comeback, good-guy story that’s easy to tell and sell.
And in fairness, overall, CBS did deliver a better telecast than it has during the regular season. Granted, we are talking about a very low bar, but let’s be fair.
One of the best things CBS did was open the checkbook and give viewers a sideline reporter, Solomon Wilcots, an analyst from their fourth-string announcing team.
Wilcots did some very good work. He had Ray Lewis right after the game, and while it looked like Ray was talking directly to his God rather than Wilcots, I wanted to feel the adrenaline, the heat, the energy of Lewis in all its raw intensity. And I did.
Thank you, Mr. Wilcots, for the hustle, and thanks to the folks in the production truck who made sure we had tight shots of interview amid all the post-game frenzy and jostling on the field.
But, again, I have to ask: Why can’t CBS give us sideline reporters during the season? With the massive money being made by the networks, how can CBS possibly justify nickel and diming viewers this way? It’s outrageous.
CBS also delivered on some of the great images in this battle.
Just before the winning field goal, the cameras caught John Harbaugh and Ray Rice side by side on the sideline with Harbaugh’s arm draped around Rice’s shoulder as they held their breath.
There was also a close-up of Lewis on the bench being tended to for a bloody and swollen hand while the offense was on the field late in the game. The extreme close-up of his hand communicated the battering the players endure more than any hard hit shown in replay.
I even have some nice words for Dierdorf. (And it’s not true that I am only including them because I promised to say such things in a prayer uttered in the last 65 seconds of regulation time when it looked like all was lost.)
Dierdorf brought a lot more energy to the telecast than he usually does -- a lot more.
In fact, one of my biggest criticisms of him is that he wouldn’t stop talking long enough to let me fully experience some of the ambience in the stadium during this epic contest. I wanted to hear more of the crowd going playoff crazy. But Dierdorf would not shut up. Again, the lack of ambient sound was more the fault of the producer than it was Dierdorf. But he was part of the problem.
And Dierdorf was so wedded to that Manning-is-God story line that he went into full gasbag mode when telling viewers during the replay mentioned earlier that the Denver quarterback’s fumble was going to be ruled an incompletion.
Dierdorf did that again with a key completion to Anquan Boldin, which went under review. He told viewers it was going to be ruled an incompletion – and he was wrong again.
OK, I guess I actually only had one nice word for Dierdorf. But, at least, it felt like he tried to raise his game to playoff level. He was engaged in what was happening on the field, instead of bored, dismissive or totally lost in gasbag pronouncements.
On the other hand, who could possibly sit in a broadcast booth at Denver’s Sports Authority Stadium at Mile High and not respond to the greatness on the field Saturday – even if it didn’t fit the network’s favored story line?
CORRECTION: An earlier version included an incorrect reference to the weekend day on which the game was played.